Is it worth collecting classical musical memorabilia and antiques?

Interest in classical music antiques and collectibles has soared in recent years, discovers Jeremy Pound, as he contemplates joining in the fun

Is it worth collecting classical musical memorabilia and antiques?

It’s that moment on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow that we all wait for. After the expert has inspected and appraised the ornate vase, Victorian brooch or Chinese gong in front of them, at last comes the revelation of – expectant pause – how much it’s worth. Cue a delighted grin on the face of the owner or, as often as not, the fixed smile that hides a sense of deep disappointment. Whatever the verdict, it all makes for a good Sunday evening’s viewing.

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Thanks partly, though not entirely, to the likes of Antiques Roadshow and its TV bedfellows such as Bargain Hunt, Antiques Road Trip and Cash in the Attic, our enthusiasm for antiques and collectibles has soared in recent years. And, explains Duncan McCoshan, a cataloguer at rare books specialists Peter Harrington, music memorabilia is no exception. ‘There’s definitely been a growth in interest in all aspects of music,’ he says. ‘This reflects a trend across the industry. With regards to books in particular, it has been driven by the likes of Harry Potter first editions, which always make news.’

Music’s Potter-style headline grabbers tend to be the original handwritten manuscripts that occasionally surface in someone’s loft or in a forgotten pile of papers in a dusty library. They, of course, are worth huge amounts. The more day-to-day world of classical musical memorabilia and collectibles revolves around items valued from as little as £50 upwards. Nor does beginning one’s own collection necessarily involve spending a day at an auction house, nose buried in a catalogue. There are specialist dealers who offer them for purchase either in person or online – if you have the funds, you can indeed click ‘Add to basket’ for, say, a photo signed by a legendary soprano or a rare first edition score.

Smaller collectibles at the lower end of the price range include cigarette cards such as those issued by WD & HO Wills in the 1910s – for a smartly mounted card of, for instance, Enrico Caruso or Liszt, you can expect to pay around £75 at a specialist dealer. A quick hunt around the web may well show the same cards at lower prices, though it’s important to bear in mind the condition they’re in. ‘Cigarette cards are a nice way to get into collecting,’ says McCoshan. ‘Wills produced a whole series of cards featuring conductors, composers and performers – you get the likes of Pergolesi and Handel alongside, say, Balfe, who has become rather forgotten about. Rarity plays a part in their price, as with baseball cards. Caruso may be fairly common, but if you have Adelina Patti, who’s a lot rarer, that will have a big impact on the value of your collection.’

Rarity alone doesn’t make an item valuable, says McCoshan: ‘You can, after all, have a rare first edition that nobody wants to buy, and you’re never going to sell Cabinet Making in Wiltshire as readily as Harry Potter.’ There are, it seems, no cast-iron rules as to what makes a collectible worth a hefty sum, though age and condition do have an impact, as does a famous signature. And some items simply come in and out of fashion.

Provenance, though, does play an important part, says McCoshan: ‘This refers to the chain of association and ownership that an item has gone through. We currently have, for example, a photograph of Stravinsky that is inscribed “To Jack Gottlieb, my best greetings, Sincerely, I. Stravinsky, Hollywood Feb. 1960”. This gives it a great musical association, as Gottlieb was Leonard Bernstein’s assistant. If it just said “To Dan, from Igor” it would be of much less interest.’

That signed Stravinsky photo will set you back £1,850. For a collection of eight lavishly illustrated Ballets Russes souvenir programmes or a copy of Porgy and Bess signed by George and Ira Gershwin, author DuBose Heyward and director Rouben Mamoulian you’ll need to fish deeper down the back of the sofa – these cost £7,500 and £8,500 respectively. Or to really push the boat out, try a first edition score of Haydn’s The Creation, published by the composer himself in 1800, for £12,500. ‘You don’t bump into something like this every day,’ says McCoshan. ‘What’s particularly nice about this copy is that it includes the list of the score’s subscribers. That makes it even more special.’

But let’s not appear too shallow here. The joy of collecting music memorabilia is not just about monetary worth – they are often exquisitely crafted, have unique intellectual value or simply have an important personal connection. In fact, as someone who has been in the business for 40 years, McCoshan says that he can still get ‘just as excited by something that’s worth 50 quid as I can about something costing several thousand’.

The interest of the BBC Music Magazine editorial team has been duly piqued. Come the end of lockdown, plans are afoot to put that interest to practical use. Watch this space. 

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Top image by www.PeterHarrington.co.uk